Modern Republicans have a simple approach to politics when they are not in the White House: Make America as ungovernable as possible by using almost any means available, from challenging the legitimacy of opponents to spreading lies and disinformation to sabotaging the economy.
Over the past four decades or so, the Republicans have simply not played by the old give-and-take rules of politics. Indeed, if one were to step back and assess this Republican approach, what you would see is something akin to how the CIA has destabilized target countries, especially those that seek to organize themselves in defiance of capitalist orthodoxy.
To stop this spread of “socialism,” nearly anything goes. Take, for example, Chile in the early 1970s when socialist President Salvador Allende won an election and took steps aimed at improving the conditions of the country’s poor.
Under the direction of President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the CIA was dispatched to engage in psychological warfare against Allende’s government and to make the Chilean economy “scream.”
U.S. intelligence agencies secretly sponsored Chilean news outlets, like the influential newspaper El Mercurio, and supported “populist” uprisings of truckers and housewives. On the economic front, the CIA coordinated efforts to starve the Chilean government of funds and to drive unemployment higher.
Worsening joblessness could then be spun by the CIA-financed news outlets as proof that Allende’s policies didn’t work and that the only choice for Chile was to scrap its social programs. When Allende compromised with the Right, that had the additional benefit of causing friction between him and some of his supporters who wanted even more radical change.
As Chile became increasingly ungovernable, the stage was set for the violent overthrow of Allende, the installation of a rightist dictatorship, and the imposition of “free-market” economics that directed more wealth and power to Chile’s rich and their American corporate backers.
Though the Allende case in Chile is perhaps the best known example of this intelligence strategy (because it was investigated by a Senate committee in the mid-1970s), the CIA has employed this approach frequently around the world. Sometimes the target government is removed without violence, although other times a bloody coup d’etat has been part of the mix.
Home to Roost
So, it is perhaps fitting that a comparable approach to politics would eventually come home to roost in the United States, even to the point that some of the propaganda funding comes from outside sources (think of Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times and Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.)
Obviously, given the wealth of the American elites, the relative proportion of the propaganda funding is derived more domestically in the United States than it would be in a place like Chile (or some other unfortunate Third World country that has gotten on Washington’s bad side).
But the concept remains the same: Control as much as possible what the population gets to see and hear; create chaos for your opponent’s government, economically and politically; blame if for the mess; and establish in the minds of the voters that they’re only way out is to submit, that the pain will stop once your side is back in power.
Today’s Republicans have fully embraced this concept of political warfare, whereas the Democrats generally have tried to play by the old rules, acquiescing when Republicans are in office with the goal of “making government work,” even if the Republicans are setting the agenda.
Unlike the Democrats and the Left, the Republicans and the Right have prepared themselves for this battle, almost as if they are following a CIA training manual. They have invested tens of billions of dollars in a propaganda infrastructure that operates 24/7, year-round, to spot and exploit missteps by political enemies.
This vertically integrated media machine allows useful information to move quickly from a right-wing blog to talk radio to Fox News to the Wall Street Journal to conservative magazines and book publishing. Right-wing propagandists are well-trained and well-funded so they can be deployed to all manner of public outlets to hammer home the talking points.
When a Democrat somehow does manage to get into the White House, Republicans in Congress (and even in the Courts) are ready to do their part in the destabilization campaign. Rather than grant traditional “honeymoon” periods of cooperation with the president’s early policies, the battle lines are drawn immediately.
In late 1992, for instance, Bill Clinton complained that his “honeymoon” didn’t even last through the transition, the two-plus months before a new president takes office. He found himself facing especially harsh hazing from the Washington press corps, as the mainstream media – seeking to shed its “liberal” label and goaded by the right-wing media – tried to demonstrate that it would be tougher on a Democrat than any Republican.
The mainstream press hyped minor “scandals” about Clinton’s Whitewater real estate investment and Travel-gate, a flap about some routine firings at the White House travel office. Meanwhile, the Right’s rapidly growing media was spreading false stories implicating Clinton in the death of White House aide Vince Foster and other “mysterious deaths.”
Republicans in Congress did all they could to feed the press hysteria, holding hearings and demanding that special prosecutors be appointed. When the Clinton administration relented, the choice of prosecutors was handed over to right-wing Republican Appeals Court Judge David Sentelle, who consciously picked political enemies of Clinton to oversee zealous investigations.
The use of scandal-mongering to destabilize the Clinton administration finally peaked in late 1998 and early 1999 when the Republican-controlled House voted impeachment and Clinton had to endure (but survive) a humiliating trial in the Senate.
The Republican strategy, however, continued into Campaign 2000 with Vice President Al Gore facing attacks on his character and integrity. Gore was falsely painted as a delusional braggart, as both right-wing and mainstream media outlets freely misquoted him and subjected him to ridicule (while simultaneously bowing and scraping before Republican candidate George W. Bush).
When Gore managed to win the national popular vote anyway – and would have carried the key state of Florida if all legally cast ballots were counted – the Republicans and the Right rose up in fury demanding that the Florida count be stopped before Bush’s tiny lead completely disappeared. Starting a minor riot in Miami, the Republicans showed how far they would go to claim the White House again.
Five Republican partisans on the U.S. Supreme Court – wanting to ensure that the new president would keep their side in control of the courts and recognizing that their party was prepared to spread disorder if Gore prevailed – stopped the counting of votes and made Bush the “winner.”
Despite this partisan ruling, Gore and the Democrats stepped back from the political confrontation. The right-wing press cheered and gloated, while the mainstream news media urged the people to accept Bush as “legitimate” for the good of the country.
For most of Bush’s disastrous presidency, this dynamic remained the same. Though barely able to complete a coherent sentence, Bush was treated with great deference, even when he failed to protect the country from the 9/11 attacks and led the nation into an unprovoked war with Iraq. There were no combative investigations of Bush like those that surrounded Clinton.
Even at the end of Bush’s presidency – when his policies of deregulation, tax cuts for the rich and massive budget deficits combined to create the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression – the prevailing message from the Establishment was that it was unfair to lay too much blame on Bush.
Shortly after Barack Obama took office in 2009, a Republican/right-wing talking point was to complain when anyone took note of the mess that Bush had left behind: “There you go again, blaming Bush.”
Immediately, too, the Republicans and the Right set to work demonizing and destroying Obama’s presidency. Instead of allowing the Democrats to enact legislation aimed at addressing the financial and economic crisis, the Senate Republicans launched filibuster after filibuster.
When Obama and the Democrats did push through emergency legislation, such as the $787 billion stimulus package, they had to water it down to reach the 60-vote super-majority. The Republicans and the Right then quickly laid the blame for high unemployment on the “failed” stimulus.
There also were waves of propaganda pounding Obama’s legitimacy. The Right’s news media pressed bogus accusations that Obama had been born in Kenya and thus was not constitutionally eligible to be president. He was denounced as a socialist, a Muslim, a fascist, an enemy of Israel, and pretty much any other charge that might hit some American hot button.
When Obama welcomed American students back to school in 2009, the Right organized against his simple message – urging young people to work hard – as if it were some form of totalitarian mind control. His attempt to address the growing crisis in American health care was denounced as taking away freedoms and imposing “death panels.”
Soon, billionaires like oil man David Koch and media mogul Murdoch, were promoting a “grassroots” rebellion against Obama called the Tea Party. Activists were showing up at presidential speeches with guns and brandishing weapons at rallies near Washington.
The high-decibel disruptions and the “screaming” economy created the impression of political chaos. Largely ignoring the role of the Republicans, the press faulted Obama for failing to live up to his campaign promise to bring greater bipartisanship to Washington.
Hearing the discord framed that way, many average Americans also blamed Obama; many of the President’s supporters grew demoralized; and, as happened with Allende in Chile, some on the Left turned against Obama for not doing more, faster.
By November 2010, the stage was set for a big Republican comeback. The party swept to victory in the House and fell just short in the Senate. But Congress was not the Republicans’ true goal. What they really want is the White House with all its executive powers.
However, following Obama’s success in killing Osama bin Laden on May 2 and with what is widely regarded as a weak Republican presidential field, the Right’s best hope for regaining complete control of the U.S. government in 2012 is to sink the U.S. economy.
Already, the Republican success in limiting the scope of the stimulus package and then labeling it a failure – combined with deep cuts in local, state and federal government spending – have helped push the economy back to the brink where a double-dip recession is now a serious concern.
Despite these worries – and a warning from Moody’s about a possible downgrade on U.S. debt if Congress delays action on raising the debt limit – the Republicans are vowing more brinksmanship over the debt-limit vote. Before acting, they are demanding major reductions in government spending (while refusing to raise taxes on the rich).
So, Obama and the Democrats face another conundrum. If they slash spending too much, they will further stall the recovery. However, if they refuse to submit to this latest round of Republican blackmail, they risk a debt crisis that could have devastating consequences for the U.S. economy for years – even decades – to come.
Either way, the right-wing media and much of the mainstream press will put the blame on Obama and the Democrats. They will be held accountable for failing to govern.
The Republican propaganda machine will tell the American people that they must throw Obama and the Democrats out of office for stability to return. There will be assurances about how the “magic of the market” will bring back the bright days of prosperity.
Of course, the reality of a new Republican administration, especially with a GOP Congress, would be the return of the old right-wing nostrums: more tax cuts for the rich, less regulation of corporations, more military spending, and more privatization of social programs.
Any budget balancing will come at the expense of labor rights for union employees and shifting the costs for health care onto the backs of the elderly. Yet, all this will be surrounded by intense propaganda explaining the public pain as a hangover from misguided government “social engineering.”
There is, of course, the possibility that the American people will see through today’s Republican CIA-style strategy of “making the economy scream.” Americans might come to recognize the role of the pseudo-populist propagandists on Fox News and talk radio.
Or Republicans might have second thoughts about playing chicken on the debt limit and running the risk of a global depression. Such a gamble could redound against them. And, it’s hard to believe that even their most ardent billionaire-backers would find destruction of their stock portfolios that appealing.
But there can be a momentum to madness. We have seen throughout history that events can get out of hand, that thoroughly propagandized true believers can truly believe. Sometimes, they don’t understand they are simply being manipulated for a lesser goal. Once the chaos starts, it is hard to restore order.
That has been another bloody lesson from the CIA’s operations in countries around the world. These covert actions can have excessive or unintended consequences.
Ousting Allende turned Chile into a fascist dictatorship that sent assassins far and wide, including Washington, D.C. Ousting Mossadegh in Iran led to the tyranny of the Shah and ultimately to an extreme Islamist backlash. Ousting Arbenz in Guatemala led to the butchery of some 200,000 people and the rise of a narco-state. Such examples can go on and on.
However, these CIA-type techniques can be very seductive, both to U.S. presidents looking for a quick fix to some international problem and to a political party trying to gain a decisive edge for winning. These methods can be especially dangerous when the other side doesn’t organize effectively to counter them.
The hard reality in the United States today is that the Republicans and the Right are now fully organized, armed with a potent propaganda machine and possessing an extraordinary political will. They are well-positioned to roll the U.S. economy off the cliff and blame the catastrophe on Obama.
Indeed, that may be their best hope for winning Election 2012.